“In my career I’ve tried to be the model that you don’t have to sell yourself out in whatever career you decide, you don’t have to do everything, you can say no.”
Saying no is the thing about Coco Rocha that astounds, even more than her accomplishments (which are lofty and plenty), her social conscience or her fun personality. These things have been done before – there is always someone on the cover, someone who is number one on a list, someone who has to win Model of the Year. But how she has done it is unique: Coco says no in an industry where yes has been the default, and says no to the extent that legendary supermodel Naomi Campbell exclaimed to her “How to do you [even get] work?”. But work she has, collecting accolades and covers, listed with the best, garnering personal respect from designers, all without compromising herself. She told Malibu Magazine:
“I’ve turned down more opportunities than I’ve accepted, and yet the opportunities have kept coming. I feel like I could leave it all tomorrow with my moral integrity still intact, and I’m proud of that.”
And this is Rocha’s fascinating “no”, as told to industry fellows in New York’s Model Lounge, where she provided advice as a board member of the Model Alliance: “Today, in my contract I have no nudity, no semi-nudity, no see through, no religious artifacts, no governmental, no political, no making out, is the guy I’m modelling with going to be nude, are there other girls that are going to be nude? I literally will sit down and discuss what my whole job will be before I arrive so when I get there I’m prepared. And if I arrive and I see lingerie on set I can say, we have had this discussion, I am walking out now. My contract is known to the entire team before I’ve even arrived on set. That’s how important your contract is, that is your life right there”.
In declining, she insists on professionalism and not being a “diva”, and her enduring collaborations with some of the best photographers and designers in the business show that she has managed this boundary with grace. She is also firm that “I don’t judge” as her friends and peers in the industry take the conventional route. But what is most remarkable is how Coco has excelled with her own life as one of the best in the industry, while breaking all its unspoken, unquestioned conventions. It sets her apart in a way that seems to defy logic, in the way Daniel did when he “resolved not to defile himself” as he trained for the king’s service, yet became the best one. Fashion photographer and host of “The Face” Nigel Barker (on which Coco appeared as a mentor) said of her path; “It’s a big position for a model to take in an industry that is dominated by the idea of ‘sex sells’. Fashion photographers are constantly getting the girls to take their clothes off, but Coco can actually put on more clothes and make it look sexier than the girl who is completely naked and putting her boobs in your face” (then again – selling clothes by wearing them – who’d have thought?).
Coco drew on a harrowing experience as a 15 year-old just beginning her modelling career, finding herself alone on set in a foreign country, begging photographers not to do nudity. No matter how uncomfortable she felt, it was the assumed norm and they threatened to send her home. Addressing young women at Columbia Law School (April 17, 2013), she said; “Some people look at me and think, “Be glad that you even got a cover. Shut up model, you’re just a model, it doesn’t matter what they do to you, you’re supposed to get naked, do whatever they say, you should be showing your boobs, shut up and don’t talk, just be happy you model. Well, I’m trying to fight those people”. Not only for herself, but for every young person who follows; “As a grown woman I can make decisions for myself. I can decide that I won’t allow myself to be degraded at a casting – marching in my underwear with a group of young girls, poked, prodded and examined like cattle. I’m able to walk away from that treatment because I am established as a model and I’m an adult… but what about the young, struggling and aspiring models?”.
And this is not a hollow sentiment, but a true speaking up of rights; in addition to advocating against eating disorders and digital manipulation of photographs, Coco has mentored and advised other models both formally and informally, and was an active proponent of an arguably overdue law to protect children and youth in the modelling industry, including their basic rights to receive education, be accompanied by chaperones and not be subjected to sexual harassment. She can add to her covers a rare claim that she truly made her industry better for others.
In fact, Coco’s “no” has actually let her “yes” shine even brighter. She has gained renown for the sheer number and speed of poses she can hit in succession without direction, even releasing a groundbreaking book which captured the human form in 1000 poses, captured in a 360-degree shoot in just three days. She is also famous for being one of the first in the hallowed world of haute couture to develop a powerful personal brand via social media, establishing herself as a personality and a skilled brand ambassador rather than a voiceless coat hanger. And she’s also no stranger to writing in well known publications about the industry, and tech, even serving as an editor for PC Magazine.
Speaking as a guest on Glamour Magazine’s “Secret of Start-Up Queens” panel (May 29, 2013), Coco Rocha asks a top-line question on life and work; “What’s it all about? Making the big career and being successful, or doing what you believe in? I really think people are respected in any industry if they stand up for what they believe”.
In her teenage years, the confronting question of whether it profits someone to gain the world yet lose their soul had somewhat higher stakes than high school electives; “When I first started modeling, I was told I needed to do pretty much anything to be successful. I had to pick, do I want to be successful? Or do I want to keep to my morals and my values, which, to me, was very important”. She reflects;
“At the end of the day, fashion’s standards will rise and fall, but I hope mine will always stay the same”
When presented with the choice, Coco made a completely uncertain, unprecedented call that seemed disadvantageous to her and everyone else in the industry, in the interests of what she thought was right and true. And in the end, she gained both – and forged an important, remarkable and beautiful path that lit the way for all of us.